By Chase Smith
In the February 2012 issue of The Lutheran magazine, Bishop Mike Rinehart of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America contributed an article that ruffled a few feathers. Bishop Rinehart opens up the piece, entitled “Insiders and Outsiders,” with these words:
Here's my hunch. Everything for me rises or falls on this bet. I'm putting all my eggs in this basket: The turnaround of mainline churches will happen when we in those churches care as much about those outside the church as we do those inside. To embrace relevance, we will have to let go of survival.
He goes on to expound on what that could look like, but centers on the argument that the “insiders” in our faith communities not only hold all of the power, but that all decisions made in our churches reflect the interests of the already-committed members, oftentimes to the neglect of the “outsiders.” That is, everything down to music choices and building and grounds decisions.
In May 2012, Pastor Charles E. Gilmore published a counterpoint article in The Lutheran. Gilmore asserted that Rinehart had gone too far in his assessment, arguing that “[s]ometimes for the sake of change one is in danger of selling out one's soul -- the core of what gives identity, meaning, purpose and connectedness not only to what is, but yes, to what has been.” In short, to change would be to lose our core identity.
As you might imagine, this tension is nothing new for the church, particularly American Lutheran congregations, this insider vs. outsider, change vs. preserving heritage debate is a deep tension that we have lived with for quite some time. Maybe longer than we realize.
When German and Scandinavian settlers first started showing up in North America, they either joined existing congregations or created their own new congregations. Many Lutherans joined Episcopalian parishes, Methodist congregations, or Baptist churches. They joined the established communities that were becoming American, which was most clearly represented in their choice to speak English at home and in worship. Then there were the Lutherans who decided to stay Lutheran and to form their own congregations. They organized themselves, sent off requests to Germany and elsewhere for pastors, and synods formed. These German or Scandinavian churches became cultural centers, not only to unite a community, but to preserve a common ethnic bond among their members. They worshiped in their native languages. They passed down traditions and histories to their children. They took great joy in revering their histories and preserving a common ethnic identity as a part of their faith community.
There were some who began to see this trend as a problem. In G.D. Bernheim's book History of the German Settlements and of the Lutheran Church in North and South Carolina we read a page from the journal of the Rev. J.G. Schwartz, a German-American Lutheran pastor (February 11, 1828): "Had those who removed from Germany to this country endeavored to introduce the language of their adopted country, our Church might now, in all probability, nearly be equal to the united churches of other denominations." As Schwartz was traveling around assessing the pulse of the Lutheran community in North Carolina in the 1820s, he was convicted time and again that the Lutherans weren’t assimilating into wider American culture. They retained their own customs and practices from the old country and still hadn’t figured out how to live as bold, integrated Lutheran Christians in the New World.
In the nearly two centuries since Pastor Schwartz penned his observations, little has changed in many Lutheran congregations. Churches are still places where German and Scandinavian heritage is celebrated and revered. German churches in the American South pull out all the stops for an annual Oktoberfest, drinking pints of beer in celebration of their German identity. Swedish congregations hold special Santa Lucia and Julotta services every year, some all in Swedish. Norwegian churchgoers anticipate regular lutefisk dinners with vigor. These traditions celebrate common ethnic history and pride, and solidify the members as a social unit. These benefits, however, are often acquired at the cost of unintentionally excluding others from their communion who don’t share the common ethnic ancestry.
I’m a church outsider. But I’m also an insider. I’ll bet that you are too. I grew up in a different region of the country than most Lutherans, and was reared in a different Christian tradition than I am now part of. I am both insider and outsider, and the good news is that Lutheran theology, indeed the whole Christian story, is no stranger to paradox. Jesus knows well what it’s like to be both an insider (followed and respected) and an outsider (rejected and eventually crucified). Our challenge is not to decide which ones we appease, but to discern how God is leading us to proclaim the Gospel to all people in many languages and, at the same time, how to make and sustain nurturing communities of disciples from all nations.
About the Author: Chase Smith is a graduate of Luther Seminary. He's a Lutheran-Episcopal youth director in his native Western North Carolina, where he lives with his wife and son. About the Missional Lab series: In Spring 2013, members of Dr. Mary Sue Dreier's "Transforming Congregations for Mission" class launched a deep and broad conversation about how to better follow Jesus in a new era -- an era where the church is losing privilege and nothing can be assumed about the people who go or don't go there.
The blog posts in this Missional Lab series are drawn from those papers. Thanks to the contributors, to Prof. Dreier, and to Luther Seminary's Center for Missional Leadership. Photo credit: "Church Reflection" (Creative Commons image by Owen Parrish on Flickr)